In isolation, Pujara’s volume of runs was imposing enough – 521 in seven digs with three centuries
In isolation, Pujara’s volume of runs was imposing enough – 521 in seven digs with three centuries

This is clearly the season of Pujara. As if winning the player of the match in the final Test and the player of the series awards against Australia wasn’t enough, India’s dependable No. 3 now has, it appears, a dance named after him – the Pujara dance. (ALSO READ: India’s Test series triumph potentially a huge step towards world domination)

The name has been assigned by Rishabh Pant, as different from Cheteshwar Pujara as is chalk from cheese. Pant is a product of new-age India, a member of the brat-pack that is driving Indian cricket forward. He is combative and feisty and self-assured bordering on the cocky, unafraid to express himself even if it sometimes means covering himself in embarrassment. Pujara, by contrast, is the old-fashioned conservative, unassuming and happy to shun the limelight, preferring as much anonymity as being in the most public of sports in India can afford. (ALSO READ: India report card: Cheteshwar Pujara, Jasprit Bumrah orchestrate landmark Test series win)

The solid present and the exciting future have been thrown together in the same environment by a passion for cricket and oodles of skill that have facilitated their selection to the national team. Pujara is a battle-hardened veteran who has seen it all in eight years of international cricket, Pant is the newbie who is already making himself felt by making the right noises, both literally and figuratively. (ALSO READ: India 2-1 Australia: How the series was won)

The very fact that a relative newcomer is able to have fun at a more established player’s expense, and with both the approval and blessings of the core group within the team framework, is illustrative of the kind of team culture that Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri have propagated. To some, it might appear disrespectful that Pant has coined a dance move mocking the senior statesman’s style of walking – ‘When he walks, he doesn’t move his hands,’ Kohli helpfully offered – but Pujara didn’t seem to mind, for once, being the object of attention. After all, during this epochal tour of Australia, he has garnered all the attention with his extraordinary presence at the batting crease, majestic and imperious in its impact if not in style or looks. (ALSO READ: Patient Cheteshwar Pujara surpasses Dravid, Sutcliffe for most balls faced in Australia)

As series wins generally are, India’s history-creating 2-1 victory was not based around one streak of brilliance, one show of iridescence, one display of awesomeness. Several parts came together in unison to make the whole way bigger than the individual components, but the one part that kept the wheel ticking over smoothly was the broadsword that Pujara wielded with such authoritative composure. (ALSO READ: Pujara reiterates value of thrift and circumspection)

In isolation, Pujara’s volume of runs was imposing enough – 521 in seven digs with three centuries, including a massive-on-outcome 103 in the first Test in Adelaide and a monumental 193 in the Sydney washout. When you take into consideration his omission for the first Test in England last summer, they assume a more significant hue. And when you factor in the hours he put in to blunt and dishearten Australia’s best bowlers hour after hour, day after day, match after match, they are more than worth their weight in gold. Pujara’s influence extended beyond 521 runs and 31 hours of batting; it extended to dimming Australia’s fire, leaving the bowling unit dispirited of mind and tired in body. He didn’t exhilarate like Kohli had done four years back when he smashed the daylights out of the Aussies while amassing 692 runs. What he did was dismantle rather than destroy, with the unhurried pace that is his USP but which, even in the recent past, barely appealed to an attack-minded management group that has since revisited its strategies. (ALSO READ: Determined Pujara delivers a knock for the ages)

India’s first overseas series victory came in New Zealand in 1968 under Tiger Pataudi, the 3-1 scoreline based around spin with Erapalli Prasanna (24), Bishan Bedi (16) and Bapu Nadkarni (14) accounting for 44 wickets combined. The batting didn’t play second fiddle, with Ajit Wadekar, Farokh Engineer and Rusi Surti all topping 300 runs, though no one touched 330. When India conquered England in their own backyard for the first time in 1971, only skipper Wadekar (204) scored in excess of 200, while S Venkataraghavan, Bedi and BS Chandrasekhar, whose six for 38 set up the decisive victory at The Oval, picked up 27 wickets between themselves.

The first triumph in Pakistan in 2004 was shaped by collective brilliance. Virender Sehwag became India’s first triple-centurion in the Multan win, Rahul Dravid backed it up with 270 in the decisive third Test in Rawalpindi. Additionally, Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh both made hundreds, while Anil Kumble led all-comers with 15 wickets, and young pace turks Lakshmipathi Balaji and Irfan Pathan shared 24 wickets equally.

The closest parallel to the impact Pujara’s runs had in India’s maiden series win in Australia is a then internationally unheralded Sunil Gavaskar’s tally of 774 in his first foray into Test cricket, in the Caribbean in 1971. Taking to the international platform with the practiced ease of a virtuoso, Gavaskar not merely defied but mastered everything West Indies threw at him, finishing the series with a staggering average of 154.80, slamming four hundreds with a highest of 220 and three fifties in eight innings.

Support came from the seasoned Dilip Sardesai, who himself stacked up 642 runs at 80.25, among them three hundreds and a best of 212. Between them, Gavaskar and Sardesai gave enough for their bowlers to work with on pitches that didn’t carry as much as spite as those subsequently in a series where two matches were played at spin-friendly Port of Spain. Venkataraghavan (22), Bedi and Prasanna wove wicked webs in snaffling 48 wickets in the 1-0 victory, sparking the legend of Wadekar the captain which was affirmed further a few months later with the conquest of the English in England.

In a quirky coincidence, Pujara’s three hundreds this tour matched Gavaskar’s tally in 1977-78 against Bob Simpson’s side; while the Saurashtra right-hander can’t claim to be as technically blessed as the master craftsman from Mumbai, he has the same defiance, patience, steely resolve and never-back-down attitude that powered Gavaskar to 10,122 runs.

One of Rahul Dravid’s more celebrated mantras was to learn to love leaving the ball. Pujara was the master of the leave on this tour, sure of where his off-stump was because of the surety of his foot movement. He also allowed the ball to come to him instead of going out looking for it, and because he was compact and played close to his body, he forced the bowlers to veer off their plans, a method that allowed him to consume 1,258 deliveries during his seven knocks.

“He has been a lot more flexible in altering his game very quickly,” Kohli said of Pujara after the latter’s Melbourne hundred set-up what turned out to be the series-clinching win. “From the last time he played in Australia, he has made a few changes to his set-up, and that’s working for him. If he can bat time and hold one end, and all the other batsmen can bat positively around him, we get 350, touching 400, in conditions in Australia, which puts us in a great position to get a result. Because of the bowling attack we have, his job is to hold one end and bat for long hours so that we have a great opportunity is to get big runs and put them out of the game.”

Pujara too made the right noises at series-end. “Winning in Australia has never been easy, and I am really pleased with my contribution,” he emphasised. “I would like to play white-ball cricket, but Test cricket is my priority, and it always will be so. For me, the first hundred was special. Scoring a ton at Adelaide and going 1-0 up is what we were aiming for. Playing in South Africa and England has helped me improve my technique. For me, it’s all about preparation and I was very well prepared. The next Test series is some 6-7 months away, it’ll give me some time to prepare.”

A well-prepared Pujara is key to India’s fortunes, especially overseas. Given his avowed inclination to cover all bases ahead of the next outing, Windies beware when India go calling there in July.